I have been purposely avoiding the Frankenstein and Dracula movies showing on TV in honor of Halloween, along with the regularly-televised zombie and walking dead programs so prolific these days. Somehow I find it unwise to surround myself with programming specifically designed to scare me into the middle of next week.
As kids, we seldom went to the movies. The whole family did see The Greatest Show on Earth at the Gloria, but we never went to horror films. No matter. On the playground at Concord, classmates breathlessly related the plots of scary movies filled with dripping blood and corpses driving wooden stakes into the hearts of their victims.
At GHS I taught a course entitled “Film Studies.” Analyzing the likes of Rain Man, We Are Marshall, and Schindler’s List was easily my favorite part of that class.
Choosing suitable films to represent the horror genre, however, was problematic. My lack of experience with such films notwithstanding, the age gap between my students and me caused much of the difficulty. My idea of horror was so tame as to thoroughly bore 21st century teens accustomed to over-the-top special effects unavailable back in my day.
My primary teaching point in the horror film category was the concept of the willing suspension of disbelief: we allow ourselves to ignore what we know is real and accept as fact the fictitious mayhem unfolding on the screen. In other words, we allow ourselves to be scared silly.
Strangely enough, my sisters and I were allowed to watch Alfred Hitchcock Presents on Sunday nights in the 50’s and 60’s. With his programs appearing in black-and-white, it was unnecessary for the clever director to show real blood and guts. His mere suggestion of slaughter and butchery regularly made a believer out of me: Hitchcock could get me to suspend my disbelief without even trying.
One memorable episode bearing the clear Hitchcock stamp featured a character whose head had been separated from his body. “The Master of Suspense” had no need to display the actual beheading. No, the clunk-clunk-clunk of said head rolling step-by-step down a spiral staircase was sufficient to completely traumatize me.
As my sister and I later climbed into our big double bed, I tried to convince her to switch sides of the bed with me. I figured if she slept closer to the door that led to our own spiral staircase, it would be her head rolling down the steps while I escaped.
Another test of disbelief suspension occurred when I served as a dormitory counselor. Some of my freshman counselees delivered the latest news in a panic: an axe murderer was “visiting” the campuses of colleges whose names started with “O.” He had been to Ohio Wesleyan and Oberlin, and rumor had it he was on his way to Otterbein.
I patronizingly calmed their fears; I was busy writing a paper and had no time for such foolishness. Much later, with my paper finished, I finally dragged myself to bed. Shortly thereafter, I heard the creaking of the outside door next to my first floor room in Cochran Hall and then heavy footsteps, steps that stopped right beside my bed.
When I finally managed to force my eyes open for a glimpse of the “O” killer with his axe raised over his head, I saw nothing. Fortunate not to have died of fright that night, I later learned the footsteps belonged to the campus cop making his nightly walk-through. Those steps I had heard next to my bed: the sound of my disbelief being unwillingly yanked around.
Not only did Edgar Allan Poe force me to suspend my disbelief, he shredded it and stomped all over it. It all happened one night when I was in the ninth grade.
Foregoing my usual procrastination for now-forgotten reasons, I decided to tackle my homework on a Friday evening. I was home alone as I opened my literature book to the assignment, “The Tell-Tale Heart.” In 2209 words, Poe reduced me to a quavering, quivering mass of nerves, wishing I knew where my mommy and my daddy were.
Fear deep inside began to rise with Poe’s description of the victim’s “vulture eye: wide, wide open…all a dull blue, with a hideous veil over it…”
I shuddered in the advancing darkness of dusk as the unhinged narrator recounted the murder of the man with the offending eye and subsequent concealment of the crime: “I dismembered the corpse…took up planks from the flooring…deposited all between the scantlings…then replaced the boards so cleverly, so cunningly…”
The murderer’s increasingly violent reactions to his perception of the still-beating heart under the floorboards and his final shrieking instructions to the neighborhood police: “tear up the planks…here, here…it is the beating of his heart” caused my own screams to echo through our empty house.
I like to think that I possess a healthy balance of courage and fear. I have never been afraid of clowns and currently feel sorry for Ronald McDonald and Bozo. On the other hand, I did call 9-1-1 late one night about people walking on my roof – only to have a policeman discover raccoons up there.
So I guess I am basically a fraidy cat, who can range from the heebie jeebies to scared witlessness in ten seconds flat. At the moment, I am just trying to survive Halloween with my disbelief intact.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.